January 22, 2017. The clock hadn’t even struck 9am when a blast ripped through a vegetable market in Parachinar, killing at least 25 people and leaving 87 injured.
The attack was claimed by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), the largest faction of the erstwhile Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in association with another TTP faction led by Shehryar Mehsud.
The attack was seen as a one-off, carried out by an outfit whose back had seemingly been broken by Operation Zarb-i-Azb.
“Terrorists will fail in their attempt to regain lost relevance,” vowed Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa back then.
February 12. A police van came under fire in the North Nazimabad area of Karachi and reporters had rushed to the spot to cover news as it was breaking.
With DSNG vans parked at the site of the incidence, unidentified men on a motorcycle opened fire at a Samaa TV van.
A young camera assistant was hit; he breathed his last while he was under treatment. The TTP claimed responsibility for both attacks.
February 13. A suicide blast on Lahore’s Mall Road claimed the lives of 13 people and left 85 injured. The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, once again.
On the same day, two Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) personnel were killed in Quetta while trying to defuse a roadside bomb at Sariab Road.
February 15. Five more perished as a suicide blast ripped through a government office in Mohmand Agency. The JuA claimed responsibility.
On the same day, a suicide attacker targeted a judges’ vehicle in Peshawar. One man was killed. The TTP claimed the attack, once again.
February 16. Devotees at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar were engrossed in the dhamaal (dance) when another suicide attacker detonated a bomb that killed at least 85 people and left more than 200 injured.
The attack was later claimed by Daesh (Islamic State [IS]) — an outfit that was previously claimed by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to be non-existent in Pakistan.
Does the fresh wave of terrorism across Pakistan signal a return to the testing times of a few years ago? And what is behind it?
February 21. Three suicide bombers attempted to storm a local court in Charsadda. Only one managed to detonate himself; the other two were killed before they could wreak havoc.
Seven, including a child and a lawyer, were killed. The attack was claimed, yet again, by the JuA.
Despite General Bajwa’s proclamations to the contrary, in less than a month, the militants had reasserted their relevance and put Pakistan on edge once again.
It is obvious from these attacks, given their near simultaneous occurrence and geographical spread, that a lot of planning and coordination went into them.
This begs the question: how can this be squared against claims that the backbone of jihadi organisations was broken by Operation Zarb-i-Azb?
Have we been pushed back to 2008 or has terror resurfaced with greater ferocity?
Or was it never quelled to begin with?
The militants’ collective
If 2016 was the year of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, 2017 was supposed to build on the gains made by General Raheel Sharif’s army. Instead, 2017 is eerily familiar.
The recent wave of attacks followed an announcement by JuA through a video message that it was launching ‘Operation Ghazi’ in the memory of Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, the Lal Masjid cleric killed in the 2007 military operation against the mosque.
The JuA has identified state institutions, security personnel, liberal political parties, writers, and English medium schools as targets.
But an important detail contained in the video messages was the reunification of various factions of the TTP and their collaboration with other outfits such as Daesh.
There were already indications, such as TTP’s Fazlullah and Khan Said Sajna, who split because of a succession dispute after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack, have now joined forces again.
There were also murmurs among security officials that the JuA collaborated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Mehsud Taliban in carrying out the Parachinar attack.
The video message reaffirmed the new phenomenon, which in part pointed to the increased operational capacity of the terrorist group, and led to a sharp spike in the attacks.
With the JuA now operating largely from Afghanistan, Army chief Gen Bajwa during his visit to Bajaur cautioned his men that “terror groups were trying to regroup in safe havens in Afghanistan.”
It should be recalled that these terrorist groups had fled operations in Pakistan and taken up sanctuaries in the bordering areas of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar in Afghanistan.
This started way back in 2010-11 during the military operation in Swat. More militant groups moved across the border during operations in North Waziristan and Khyber.
Both the government and the military, which is in the driving seat as far as matters pertaining to national security are concerned, are unanimous in their belief that many terrorist groups had been weakened by the counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, during which their bases as well as command and control structures were destroyed.
They claim that these groups are being revitalised by the hostile Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Indian agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
While Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan blames “external powers and their intelligence agencies” for the upturn in terrorist violence, Gen Bajwa’s assessment is no different as he points towards the hidden hand of “external powers.”
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, whose seat of power, Lahore, had also been hit by this wave maintains that he has no doubt that the terrorist groups were preparing and planning attacks from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Only after sustaining heavy losses did Punjab agree to seek the Rangers’ help to tackle terror in the province, with a decision made by the provincial apex committee as late as February 19, 2017.
Shahbaz Sharif’s latest appraisal is based on the findings of the investigations into the suicide bombing in which Traffic DIG Mobin Zaidi, SSP Zahid Gondal and 11 others were killed.
Anwarul Haq, the arrested handler of Afghan suicide bomber Nasrullah, revealed to his investigators that he received instructions for the attack from Afghanistan-based JuA chief Omar Khalid Khorasani.
But why are the militants carrying out attacks now?
The perennial terror problem
There has been a myth that Pakistan had overcome its terrorism problem.
Looking back at the past six months reveals a gradual increase in the frequency of attacks.
On average, 38 attacks have taken place per month during this time.
Yearly data compiled by Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), a think-tank specialising in security issues, shows that 441 terrorist attacks took place in 2016, during which 908 lives were lost.
But there is definitely a change now as militants have been able to hit a broader geographical area and have become more lethal.
The recent attacks were carried out in quick succession in all four provinces and on border posts along the Pak-Afghan boundary.
Although there have been quite a few high-profile attacks since the carnage at Army Public School, Peshawar, most strikes have been described by security officials as ‘hit-and-run’ operations. The latest pattern, therefore, exhibits increased coordination and better planning.
As security strategists sit down to analyse the attacks, an essential element in their breakdown of the events would be the claims of responsibility of the attacks.
Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta incidents were claimed by JuA that already announced its operation.
But Daesh’s claim of executing the Sehwan attack is of particular interest. It is not the first attack claimed by the group, whose existence in Pakistan is denied by authorities here. PIPS chief Rana reads Daesh’s claim as a message of “its reach and ability to strike.”
Security circles agree that the Sehwan attack was the handiwork of a local outfit, most probably LeJ, which pledged allegiance to Daesh’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On the other hand, formersecurity official Col (retd) Hassan Ali believes it was a ploy by Daesh to obfuscate and save their affiliate LeJ’s sympathisers from the security crackdown that followed.
India at it again?
Meanwhile, a top diplomat, who because of the sensitivity of his position does not want to be named, clearly finds Indian involvement in the resurgence of terror in Pakistan. “It is our eastern neighbour’s game plan,” he argues.
“Things had been improving. The Economic Cooperation Organisation summit is being held and cricket matches have been planned. They want to disturb this. They can easily orchestrate this with the help of Afghanistan.”
The diplomat may not be completely off the mark given that India had prevented Pakistan from hosting the SAARC summit earlier this year in an attempt to push Pakistan towards isolation.
Indian leaders and officials have time and again talked about punishing Pakistan [for its alleged role in exporting terror] through all possible means.
Former Indian Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, in a recent interview, said: “Unless we punish Pakistan through kinetic/non-kinetic, overt/covert means, it would not budge. All elements of national power have to be used so that the Pakistan Army is compelled to look inwards. This can happen through asymmetric means. It is part of the strategy.”
Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria notes that Indian involvement in terrorism in Pakistan is “well known.”
Indian leaders, he says, have been saying this, while captured RAW agent Kubhushan Jhadav’s confessional statement testifies to this as well. “Things speak for themselves,” he adds.
India has significant influence over Afghanistan particularly NDS. Pakistani security officials argue that it is quite possible for Delhi to have exploited Afghanistan’s grudge against Pakistan over the continued presence of the Taliban and Haqqani Network on its soil.
And, going by the accounts shared by security officials, the Indians aided Pakistani terror groups with money and weapons.
That may explain the broader context of the resurgent terrorist activity, but people generally fail to reconcile this with the repeated claims by both political and military leadership that the “backbone of terrorists had been broken.”
Political eyewash at home
Security analyst Amir Rana, who also heads the PIPS, explains that “the claims of victory against terrorism were part of propaganda tactics against the enemy and boosting morale at home.”
The media, he emphasises, “over-hyped those claims” and complacency crept in. “And now that we have been struck and struck hard by the same enemy,” Rana says, “people are struggling to understand what had gone wrong. The threat actually never went away.”
Rana insists that the decline in intensity after Zarb-i-Azb was because the terrorists were on the run and had gotten disconnected with their local support base — the extremist and sectarian groups present in society. “Now they have reconnected.”
Brig (retd) Asad Munir, a former ISI official, supports this view as he recalls that counter-terrorism operations made the terrorists flee but “their leadership remained intact.”
Matters worsened because some leaders were hobnobbing with banned groups, he argues.
Brig Munir alludes to meetings held between civilian political leaders and representatives of banned organisations — an inconvenient truth also pointed out by Justice Qazi Faez Isa in his report.
This factor also brings the discussion back to the half-hearted implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP).
The inquiry report, it should be recalled, had also mentioned the interior ministry’s reluctance to proscribe the JuA.
Extremist groups benefitted from the inadequate implementation of NAP as they were allowed to hold public gatherings, their finances continued to flow, there was no regulation of their madrassas, law enforcement agencies continued to suffer from capacity issues, and legal reforms required for prosecution of those accused of terrorism were not enacted.
This not only helped them survive the 26,000 intelligence-based and combing operations, but when the time came, they were able to quickly reconnect with their militant/armed wings.
Sindh, where Lal Shahbaz’s shrine was bombed, is a classic example of how extremism was allowed to thrive due to political expediencies.
Once known as the land of Sufis, poverty-stricken Sindh has now turned into an extremist base with motley of terrorist groups — JuA, LeJ, Jundullah and Al-Qaeda to name a few — operating there largely with complete impunity.
The spread of extremism in Sindh had been facilitated by an unchecked growth of madrassas in mostly slum setups, and the influx of militant groups from neighbouring Balochistan.
“There is a combination of factors behind this phenomenon in Sindh,” argues independent analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “Most important among them is that state agencies allowed militants to grow there and the ruling party looked the other way because of its own interests. I remember warning President Asif Ali Zardari in 2009 when I was called for a meeting about the threat of madrassas and his response was that it is not a major issue, until it became otherwise.”
No wonder the arrested alleged facilitators of Sehwan attack were two local PPP legislators.
The Sindh government’s indifference to the extremist problem was part of the bigger malaise from which Punjab administration also suffers, tacitly permitting extremism to spread in the southern parts of the province, and resisting operation against banned groups in Punjab.
The recent bombings may have compelled the Punjab government to review its position on operations by paramilitary forces. An announcement after a meeting of the Punjab apex committee said the Rangers were being granted special powers for an operation against banned groups in the province.
The Army’s view of the situation is that Operation Zarb-i-Azb, associated intelligence-based operations (IBOs) and combing operations had helped achieve the military objectives of destroying militant infrastructure across the country and interrupting their communication networks, but the follow-up to that was the civilian government’s responsibility.
Notwithstanding the agreed failure to dismantle extremist networks within the country, recent incidents have also brought into the limelight the failure of intelligence agencies to see the attacks coming.
Not only have terrorist groups publicly stated their intention to hit, but there were warnings from within the system pointing towards entry of “29 miscreants from Pakistan,” who had been dispatched by Afghanistan’s NDS for subversive activity.
Col (retd) Ali says “it was undoubtedly a security failure” irrespective of who gets the blame in the final analysis — lack of inter-agency cooperation, paucity of resources or some other excuse.
“The terrorists beat Pakistani security agencies in time and space. They did planning for months and put the arrangements in place before announcing Operation Ghazi.
Moreover, human factor is involved in this lapse, the alert was not taken seriously,” Col Ali believes.
The optics of conflict
The spate of terror attacks have left scores of Pakistanis shaken but crucially, the reality of the claims of defeating terrorism also stood exposed before them.
Naturally, the response to terror attacks was led by the Army, whose ‘victor’ image had been sullied by the terrorists.
Gen Bajwa’s words defined Pakistan’s reply: “Each drop of the nation’s blood shall be avenged and avenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone.”
Domestically, combing operations were initiated the same night after the Sehwan attack and “raids were conducted at terrorist hideouts” throughout the country.
Some 24 hours later, the country was told that more than 100 terrorists had been killed in gun battles during the action.
No details were revealed about who was killed, where and how the military received actionable intelligence about those terrorist hideouts hours after the Sehwan attack.
Barring a statement by the Sindh Rangers on an ‘encounter’ in Karachi in which 11 people were killed, mostly belonging to JuA and LeJ, and another by the Frontier Corps about killing of two TTP commanders in Quetta, specific details about military operations are scant.
Except for some banned groups clamouring that their “jailed colleagues” were killed, no other details are forthcoming.
The general, who had from his early days in office indicated that he’d be running the Afghan policy, took steps in parallel to challenge Afghanistan’s inaction against Pakistani terrorist groups operating from its soil.
He ordered the closure of border crossing points, summoned the Afghan envoy, and his troops targeted “terrorist camps and infrastructure” near the border. It was said that terrorists suffered heavily from the shelling.
Afghanistan responded cautiously to Pakistan’s moves. Instead of the usual knee-jerk reaction and blame game, Afghanistan offered condolences for those killed in the attack and said it had been indiscriminately acting against all terrorist groups, irrespective of whom they target.
Afghan Army Chief General Qadam Shah Shaheem offered cooperation and also called for reciprocity. “We will investigate [the Pakistani list], and if there is a need for more evidence and documents, we will ask for it. But we also handed over a number of lists with enough evidences and documents to Pakistan and we hope they will also sincerely take action on them.”
Afghan analyst Haroon Mir, in his comments from Kabul, argues that the current escalation is the continuation and compilation of past policy mistakes between Afghanistan and Pakistan due to a historical deficit of trust and misunderstanding.
“In this environment of mistrust, we ought to deescalate the situation and restart confidence-building measures initiated by President Ashraf Ghani at the beginning of his presidency. Despite all the challenges, the two nations must work together in order to address existential challenges that emanate from terrorism and radicalism.”
After talking tough for days, Gen Bajwa finally realised that the only way out of the difficult and frustrating situation is cooperation with Afghanistan and not confrontation.
A statement issued at the end of a security meeting in GHQ last Monday read: “Enhanced security on the border was against common enemy. Pakistan and Afghanistan are together in this fight against terrorism.”
The government and the military may have acted swiftly against the associates of the groups involved in the recent bombings — the death of 100 ‘terrorists’ in a day in counter-terrorism operations in addition to shelling of sanctuaries on Pak-Afghan border shows the scale of the response — but ordinary Pakistanis seem fearful of the prospect of more attacks.
“Unfortunately it will happen again,” worries retired educationist Prof Sajjad Bokhari. “They are so well entrenched in our society that operations like the one witnessed over past few days hardly causes a serious damage to their network. They have efficient means of communication, they get lot of new recruits and finances from within the society, they act faster than our security agencies do.”
Intelligence officials in their private discussion also express similar apprehensions and fret about the situation getting as messy as it was in the pre-Zarb-i-Azb days.
“At least that’s what the terrorists are planning, it all now depends on us, whether or not we can pre-empt them,” argues a senior counter-terrorism official during a candid discussion at his Islamabad office.
Mazhar Mashwani, a Counter-Terrorism Department official in Karachi, says it is unclear how long the terrorists can sustain their planned activity.
“The terrorists have given the message about their existence despite Zarb-e-Azab and the Karachi Operation,” he says, adding some hostile countries were bent on “destabilising” Pakistan.
PIPS Director Rana is also of the view that whether or not the terrorists continue their activities in the coming days, “they’ll remain a potent threat. They can recover from the ongoing crackdown and hit back. Much would depend on how their support networks are dealt with.”
One indication of the honesty (of lack thereof) with which authorities intend to act against sympathisers and supporters of terrorists is that the Punjab government, while begrudgingly allowing Rangers’ participation in counter-terrorism operations in the province, did not permit any actions against banned organisations — a draft official memorandum about powers for Rangers available with Eos reveals.
Rather their mandate of action has been restricted to terrorist groups, without realising that terrorists cannot act without the support of banned organisations that keep their support base motivated and intact.
The Punjab government has further made sure that Rangers operations would only be subject to clearance by the apex committee led by the provincial chief minister quite unlike Karachi where the paramilitary force has a freer hand.
It is assumed that besides the public pressure after the bombings, the Punjab government agreed to “partial powers” for Rangers because the Army too as part of what was described by ISPR as a “policy decision” decided not to object to restrictions on Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed.
Rana says governments always take “cosmetic measures” when under pressure.
He points out that despite all the clamour and clatter about operation against terrorist hideouts after the recent wave, no one, at any level of governance, sought a comprehensive review of the situation.
The writer is a member of staff. Connect with him over email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 26th, 2017